Categories: Retrospective

The Enduring Horror of ‘Alien’ on its 45th Anniversary [Retrospective]

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Forty-five years after Ridley Scott directed, and Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Schusett wrote Alien, it is still terrifying. With Escape from Alcatraz trailing close behind, it was the number one domestic film when it opened the weekend of June 22, 1979. Even with the benefit of better technology and more money, a random selection of any horror or sci film from 2024 do not measure up. H. R. Giger’s creature practical effects still dominate, and Bolaji Badejo in the Xenomorph suit gives it life. O’Bannon joked that he ripped ideas off a selection of B movies like Forbidden Planet, Planet of the Vampires, The Thing from Another World, and It! The Terror from Beyond Space. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars: A New Hope and Texas Chainsaw Massacre inspired Scott’s vision. Scott would later reveal that Alien existed in the same universe as other great classics like Blade Runner.

The efforts to replicate its success are voracious with no sign of ending. Its subsequent sequel, Aliens, with director James Cameron at the helm surpassed its predecessor in terms of credible competitive permanent popularity.  Later sequels, director David Fincher’s Alien 3 and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and writer Joss Whedon’s Alien Resurrection, were cult hits that were not as widely acclaimed but were no less memorable for iconic shots of the ultimate Final Woman, Ellen Ripley (legend Sigourney Weaver), wincing from a Xenomorph with no respect for personal space or effortlessly backhanding a basketball into a hoop. Eventually the Predator franchise would join in on the fun. Though highly entertaining, the crossover Alien v. Predator films were lacking in terms of quality and not considered canon. Scott would return to the well with derided prequels Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. On August 16, expect a sequel prequel, Alien: Romulus, sandwiched in this universe between Alien and Aliens. So why is Alien still on top?

Here is a basic summary of the original masterpiece. While carrying twenty million tons of mineral ore and a crew of eight, The Nostromo, a commercial towing ship, stops its return trip to Earth early because Mother (Helen Horton), the ship’s computer, is programmed to execute a secret mission. Dallas (Tom Skerritt with top billing) is the captain, and the pale, hungover from cryo-sleep Kane (John Hurt) serves as second in command. Ripley is third in command, but no one listens to her, including Lambert (Veronica Cartright), the ship’s navigator, Parker (Yaphet Kotto), the chief engineer and unofficial union steward, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Parker’s buddy and engineering technician, Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer, and Jones, nicknamed Jonesy (4 unnamed orange cats). It takes some of the crew time to recognize that they stopped but are not home and have to investigate a transmission coming from a planet. The landing damages the ship, and a strange creature, a face hugger, attacks one of three crew members who exit the ship to explore the surface. Ignoring quarantine protocol, the three return to the ship, and chaos ensues once the titular character is born after breaking free of Kane’s chest and picks the human members of the crew off one by one until Ripley prevails with Jonesy peacefully sitting in a cryo-chamber.

The prevailing theory for Alien’s fright foundation is how the attacks evoke rape, which is accurate. Others suggest that it is a gothic horror set in space. Indeed it has a lot in common with Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a ship carrying a stowaway that threatens the existence of humanity. Like some of the victims on The Demeter, Brett and Dallas’ bodies vanish. Parker and Lambert’s bodies are found broken and in pieces. It is all scary stuff, but the real inescapable horror lies in the company’s office politics and hierarchy which manipulates its victims, including the alien and the undercover robot with an agenda, into turning against each other to serve the company’s agenda. Willing to risk losing the vast stores of mineral ore, its ship and human life, the company wants to acquire a Xenomorph without paying the market price or using informed consent to get its workers to take the risk. Throughout Alien, the company has so effectively instilled their imperative of putting the company before common sense, ethics, rules and anyone’s best interest that those who will suffer still advocate for the company even when they are suspicious. Just like the Xenomorph takes the shape of its original host, most of the crew carries the attributes of their employer and will carry out its order without much prompting until it’s too late.

While class plays a role, and film theorists have analyzed how the film depicts blue-collar workers’ future exploitation, this piece will not address those issues. Instead let’s examine the universal nagging pit in our stomach from watching people work and live together 24/7, an already nightmare scenario of never being able to escape from work and have a life. The opening scene tours the vast unmanned ship’s interior, which is tenebrous, cramped though massive and has a cold palette. The crew sleeps in coffin-like structures as if they were already dead or Sleeping Beauty. When they wake up, the inhospitable environment contrasts with the lighting of the rest of the ship. It features gleaming white walls and is brightly lit. The men, specifically Kane, are the primary focus, and Kane is as vulnerable as a baby with each shot of him from a different angle dissolving into each other. It is as if they are in a hospital or a lab. Even though the Nostromo is their home, there is no section of it which is recognizably meant to even create the illusion of the warm creature comforts of Earth. While they complain about the quality of the food, and the engineers complain about their workload, curiously no one challenges the environment. It is accepted. Later the alien entwines and camouflages itself as part of the infrastructure.

The crew suffers from Boiling Frog Syndrome, which incidentally is fictional when applied to a frog. The company starts small with its hidden contract clauses which cheat them of money then escalates to taking their lives, which was not in the fine print. The crew’s initial interaction depicts Parker speaking out about bonuses because the engineers receive less shares than everyone else even though they perform more physically intense labor under worse conditions. Dallas instinctually argues on behalf of the company by ignoring the inequity and dismissing the argument of inequality with the excuse that you get what you bargained for in the contract, a concept that is not true in this film. Everyone is in danger. Even though the two men are literally in the same boat, because of rank and more money, Dallas is unempathetic though still friendly with Parker and Brett. When Mother demands that they stop eating through audible signals, Dallas leaves to read some exclusive orders, and everyone else, including Ripley, rises to report to their stations, except Parker who wants to finish eating. How many people routinely, voluntarily and unquestioningly, give away their time to their employer to work, including the right to eat without interruption? Remember, this is their first meal since waking up.

When the crew goes to their station, they are bewildered that Earth is not visible. Ripley immediately recognizes the predicament, but Lambert is annoyed at her stepping on her toes since she determines location. Every character exhibits this territorial defensiveness. It is implied that Ripley has the reputation of being a know-it-all. When they reconvene, Dallas informs them that their mission has changed. Parker is willing to obey for more money, but Ash reminds him that a contract clause will penalize them if they do not investigate “any systemized transmission indicating intelligent origin.” The penalty is forfeiting pay for all the work that they have done up to that point. Later Alien will reveal that Ash, the undercover robot, knows that his coworkers will be slaughtered to unwittingly retrieve a specimen with no known weaknesses. Even though a homicidal robot who is more excited to study a creature than prioritize human life may be considered evil, he is also a victim of his programming like most of the crew who have money as a motivation. His devotion to studying the alien leads Ash into becoming injured, malfunctioning and eventually dying. When Lambert complains about surface conditions and suggests returning, Kane objects, and Dallas backs him up. Lambert heeds their admonishments and keeps going. The only character who can override her programming is Ripley, otherwise everyone else betrays themselves in incrementally growing ways.

While the characters were written for any gender, Ripley’s femaleness plays a role in the downfall of her colleagues because of their reflexive dismissal of her words. As stated earlier, no one of a lower rank listens to her, and Dallas regularly chooses to listen to the science officer over Ripley because Ash represents the company, not sound scientific principles. At one point, Parker and Brett complain that no one else visits their station, but when Ripley does, they deliberately make the ship hiss steam so they can pretend not to hear her. They even start to take a hard stance on their bonus issue, and she tells them the law, which implies that they may have a point, and she agrees with them, but it is unclear.

Ash has the greatest disdain for Ripley because she notices his furtive sabotage. When Dallas, Kane and Lambert leave the ship, Ash does a rapid jog of excitement. After deciphering that the signal is not a SOS, but a warning beacon, Ripley spoils his fun by joining him on the bridge and suggests that the three get an update about the transmission’s meaning, which he shoots down though she is the ranking officer on deck. She acquiesces because his reasoning seems sound. When she refuses to let the three surface explorers reenter the ship because of protocol, suddenly procedure and rank do not matter, and Ash violates her order, but only after the usually retiring and meek Lambert screams at her. Lambert only feels comfortable asserting herself to the only other woman in the crew. When Ripley checks Ash in his lab for disobeying her orders, Ridley highlights her holding a metallic object in the foreground, which creates the visual implication and foreshadowing of how she sees Ash as a threat and feels the need to brandish such an item to maintain distance between them. The camera stays as focused on Ash. Ash cannot suppress his visible discomfort and is furtively hiding his work. When Ripley expresses her reservations about Ash, Dallas still pairs her with Ash instead of letting her volunteer to go into the air vents to hunt and kill the alien, a job no one else wants. When Kane volunteered to explore the surface, Dallas did not deny his request. It cannot be an act of protection because then he would not pair her with the only member of the crew that she distrusts. After Kane and Dallas die, Ripley becomes chief officer, but she must shout above Parker and Lambert to get her ideas heard. After she gains access to orders that Dallas presumably never saw and discovers the company’s hidden agenda, Ash hurls her onto a table adjacent to a wall full of sexualized photos of women in the mess hall then curls up a magazine to shove into her mouth, mimicking the face hugger’s modus operandi. Even a robot just wants her to shut her mouth and places her in the physical category of a woman with a limited function.

It is not just the alien’s exponential development which constantly changes and surprises the crew so they cannot be prepared, keep up and defend themselves against it. It is also the way that the company and ensuing systemic societal norms constantly shift to quiet the person who prioritizes their life and safety over the company’s goals. It is not about following rank otherwise Ripley should not have any opposition once she becomes captain. Alien portrays how work life erodes the ability of people to care about each other’s concerns, recognize when they are in danger and bond together to find common ground. Instead most of the crew wordlessly finds consensus in disagreeing with Ridley, the only person who privileges the human and feline’s best interests. Dallas shouts, “That’s what the company wants to happen. Standard procedure is to do what the hell they tell you to do.” Because Ridley does not follow that rule or finds money motivating, she is the de facto pariah.

The Nostromo crew silent their own sense of self preservation, quiet their objections, ignore their common sense and obey orders from “the company” issued from a computer with its human programmers safely back home, not alone in space. There is the innate horror of a Mother who plays favorites and was supposed to protect them during the long voyage. Accessing Mother, the Nostromo’s computer or AI, means entering a circular room, and the door makes an audible sound when it opens and closes; however, after Ripley reads the special order that their lives are expendable, Ash is suddenly next to her, which begins a terrifying attack. Once again, the infrastructure of their workspace is like theater. Even the sound is orchestrated but can be quieted when the need is required. Every aspect of their work life is a set up. Ripley discovers that the game is further rigged when she follows protocols to reverse self-destruct, but Mother continues to kill herself.

This horror sci fi classic has a simple moral. Human beings mostly die in the order of how much they acquiesced to the company without complaint, and even the robot and alien are not immune. Only the rebel, Ripley, and Jonesy, a cat who is the embodiment of a being who is never subservient, survive. Do not prioritize your employer over your safety and recognize that if someone disregards your concerns when it is a small matter, they will do so in critical ones. Ask yourself if you are defending an entity or a concept over a person, especially if that entity does not have a history of protecting you. Also if a person is always right, and everyone can agree on only one thing, to hate that person, deconstruct why that person bothers you because they may just be a scapegoat distracting you from the one putting you in danger.

Alien was released in theaters by 20th Century Fox on June 22, 1979. It is currently available to stream on Hulu or to rent/buy on Amazon/Prime Video.

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